Skye Blakely ‘sHut Down’ After The 2021 Olympic Trials. A Mental Coach Helped Bring Her Back

Skye Blakely competes on the floor exercise during the U.S. Classic gymnastics event Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
Skye Blakely competes on the floor exercise during the U.S. Classic gymnastics event Saturday, May 18, 2024, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)
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FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Skye Blakely didn't want to hear it. Just like most teenagers whenever their parents offer to help.

Stephanie and Steven Blakely approached their youngest daughter twice in the aftermath of the 2021 Olympic trials — a meet that ended with the 16-year-old's left elbow requiring surgery, ending any shot she had at making the five-woman U.S. team — and both times Skye respectfully blew them off.

“I didn't want to talk to anybody,” Blakely said. “Honestly, I kind of shut down after that meet.”

The pandemic-delayed 2020 Olympics unexpectedly had opened a door for the Dallas-area native. If they went on as originally scheduled, she would have been too young to qualify. When they were pushed back, she pushed to get ready and arrived at trials with a chance to make an impression on the selection committee.

Instead, she left St. Louis in tears after her elbow gave way during vault warmups, tearing the ulnar collateral ligament and ending any shot she had at making it to Tokyo.

Not being named to the team is one thing. Having your body betray you is another.

“It was traumatic and I had to have surgery,” Blakely said. “So that was a big shift in my world, and for while it was hard for me to understand, and it just really hurt my feelings in my heart.”

So no, she didn't want to talk about it. While she did have a meeting with a mental health professional the day after the injury, she admits now that it wasn't “for real.” It was more like checking off a box.

Then Stephanie Blakely asked one more time. Finally, her daughter relented.

Looking back, it made all the difference. Regularly working with a “mental coach," as Blakely described it, over the last few years helped her in ways she didn't quite imagine. It also propelled her back into the Olympic mix again, this time with a healthy elbow and — just as importantly — a healthy mindset.

That showed on Friday night during the U.S. championships, when the now 19-year-old Blakely put together four steady and occasionally spectacular routines — capped with the first 15.0 of her career thanks to a Cheng vault in which her surgically repaired elbow held up just fine — to finish with an all-around total of 57.050, better than everyone not named Simone Biles.

Blakely jotted down her target score for each event in the Notes app on her phone before competing. She did it on three of them, including a powerful and precise Cheng vault that left her “shocked” when the 15 flashed.

There is still a long way to go between Sunday's national finals and the last night of Olympic trials at the end of June. While Biles is practically a lock to make the team for Paris, the race to join her is wide open and packed with athletes — from Sunisa Lee to Jordan Chiles to Jade Carey to Shilese Jones to Leanne Wong — that have Olympic or world championship medals (or both) stashed away back home.

Blakely has a couple of them (both gold), too, after helping the U.S. win world titles in 2022 and 2023, meets where she saw first-hand how little margin for error there is on the sport's biggest stage. She was nervy during qualifying in 2022 and fell during beam qualifying in 2023, though she recovered with a steady bars performance in the finals to help the Americans pull away from Britain.

She arrived at Dickies Arena coming off four OK but not spectacular rotations at the U.S. Classic two weeks ago, when she finished in the top three on just one event (vault). Blakely ranked in the top four on four events on Friday, doing it in front of the same judges who will be in Minneapolis for trials at the end of the month.

Everything that was taken away from her when her elbow gave out in St. Louis is now back on the table. She's trying not to get ahead of herself. That wasn't always the case. She admits she put pressure on herself in 2021, maybe too much. She understands now that it “just wasn't my moment.”

It's an understanding that comes from maturity not just physically but emotionally. The assistance she initially shunned has become a vital part of her growth.

“Sometimes just talking it out and processing my feelings and what I've been through and what I'm going to go through, I feel like that's helping my brain to better understand and deal with certain situations,” she said. “And that is honestly what helps me the most.”

When Blakely steps onto the mat on Sunday night, her mind won't race to the stakes, the future or whether her body will hold up. She worked too hard — both inside and outside the gym — for that to happen.

“I’m not focused on like, ‘Oh, I can get hurt today,’” she said. “That’s definitely not where my mind is. It’s just kind of like, just stay in the moment and do your job every day. Try to find the fun in it.”


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